Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago today

I was coming out of a journalism class at Marquette University when a couple of classmates bounded up the stairs shouting, “The President has been shot!”

I don’t think they said the word “dead,” or if they did I wasn’t going to believe it without knowing more. The students in question were editors of the campus newspaper, and they were headed for the closet where a venerable teletype machine clattered out breaking news. As soon as new information came across the wire, they would be able to rip the story off the machine. But I didn’t wait around.

I walked in a daze to my dorm. I looked—maybe stared—at every person I passed, wondering whether they had heard the news. It didn’t seem that anyone had. I turned on my radio—it never occurred to me to go downstairs to the TV lounge where a group was gathering.. I listened, wanting answers that never came. How could this happen, in this country, in this day and age? That was the day my generation lost its innocence.

I left early Friday evening for a religious retreat, where we spent the weekend in prayer and silent meditation. By the time I got back to my dorm Sunday, Lyndon Johnson was president, Lee Harvey Oswald was dead, and Marquette had decided to close early for Thanksgiving. So I boarded a Greyhound for an overnight 14-hour trip home. The rest of the world had been watching television, absorbing heart-wrenching scenes and shocking details, and dealing with their thoughts and emotions. But I had been in two alternate universes—a retreat and a bus trip.

When I got home, the television was on. I saw JFK’s casket lying in state as people filed by in tears. I watched the funeral, learned the word cortege, was haunted by the riderless horse. I saw Jackie, Bobby, and Teddy striding down the street looking grimly determined and, I thought, angry. And why shouldn’t they be? Within days, Life magazine brought out a special issue; I rushed to buy it and I paged through it again and again, soaking in the photos. At a church bazaar the Saturday after Thanksgiving I heard some women talking about Jackie—how she had been so brave, how she hadn’t seemed to cry, how when you looked at the pictures you could see her sadness and you knew she had indeed cried. They were relieved to know she was real.

Through it all, for days and weeks, it stayed with me, a sense that something was terribly wrong. I know now that it was grief, pure and simple. Grief for a president I didn’t appreciate until he was gone, grief for his family whose beauty could not protect them from tragic loss, and grief for our nation, which no longer seemed so shiny and promising.

At the time, I thought something had changed. Today I would say Camelot was an illusion, that ugliness and privilege and corruption and violence were present behind the gauzy curtains and JFK’s death merely showed us what was possible. Pearl Harbor had been a shock for my parents’ generation, and the attacks of 9/11 would have a similar effect on my daughter’s generation. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was profoundly sad.

Today as I write this I recall details from 1963 and I recall how I was again brought to tears just a few years ago by exhibits and films at the Sixth Floor Museum at the old Texas Book Depository. Fifty years after John Kennedy’s assassination, I am feeling that same grief again. I am wishing that my grandchildren would never have to learn that the unthinkable can indeed happen right here in the USA. And I know that wish will not come true.


Red Shoes said...

Thank you for this timely post. I am sadly surprised at the lack of posts commemorating this event. I was hoping that I wouldn't be the only one to write about it.

I was a kid, but my parents weren't fans of his. Yet, I was saddened that something like this could happen. It seems that for all of the planning that was made, that this happened way too easily. Why have guards at the triple overpass to be looking for possible shooters, but someone NOT notice an open window on the parade route?

I went to Dealey Plaza a few years ago while on a Texas road trip... and when I first saw it, I got goosebumps. As someone said on the news this morning, that is one location that does seem to be frozen in time.

Thank you again for writing this.


stephen Hayes said...

I enjoyed reading and appreciate your thoughtful comments on this dreadful day.

Jeanie said...

I was in high school and still remember it vividly. One boy in the class cheered and the teacher dealt with him in a way that would probably get him arrested today.
From your very well written post and several others I have read I am struck by how personally the death of President Kennedy affected people. I know some of the emotions still feel very fresh to me even after 50 years. It is hard to think about what might be an equivalent event in the lives of our grandchildren but, like you, I fear it will come.

Far Side of Fifty said...

It was a sad time. I was in Seventh grade in Social Studies Class. One of those days you never forget. Thanks for the post today and sharing:)

DJan said...

I didn't write about it because everywhere I look, I am reminded of that time. I was a young mother and in the processing of bleaching my hair peroxide blonde when it happened. It still remains a terrible memory and I'm filled with grief when I think of it. Beautifully written post. Thank you.

SarahBeth said...

I thought of writing about it but instead watched on TV the memorial service at Dealey Plaza and WFAA's broadcast of their actual newscast on that fateful day. I live a few miles from Dallas and am well familiar with all the sites of that day. In fact, my son is now a partner in the Texas Theatre.
I was in the 10th grade, living in Louisiana, and on my way to civics class when the announcement came. It was a sad day. Thanks for your post.

Unknown said...

We have sure lived in some interesting times. I was in the 8th grade and had stayed home from school sick, actually I stayed at my aunt's and I vividly remember watching it all happen on TV. Things did change that day.

troutbirder said...

I had just come out of my class and walked down to Coffman Union when I saw students gather around a TV. Digesting the news, I immediately turned around and instead of waiting for my usual bus for the ride home walked the elven miles to my parents. We live near the beacon light overlooking the St. Paul Airport below and across the river. It was a very long walk....:(

Jeanie said...

I think so many of us have had interesting flashbacks over the past few weeks, but I especially think you nailed it when you were referring to key events of a generation. While all those events touch us, it seems there is one in every generation where reality is shocked and we realize the world has changed. And you were spot on with Pearl Harbor, JFK and 9/11. Very thoughtful, well written post.

Ms Sparrow said...

Well said! You make a good point in comparing Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination and 9/11 as events that have had a monumental effect on our country and national psyche. We have lived through all of them but we have been humbled by them as well.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Thank you for writing this post. I was seven, in second grade. My mother wouldn't let me watch. For some reason I ended up at my grandma's and had the entire mess on the TV. I, too, learned of the word cortege and the long ride of the coffin. Scared the crap out of me. Couldn't sleep at night. Slept with the covers over my head. Little did I know it was only a precursor to the horror 1968 would bring.

I believe that because we had the television coverage unlike ever in the past, this tragedy took us to a place none of us ever wanted to be. A place that scared us. An innocence killed on a sorry ass day in Dallas. Dallas - forever labeled as the place where JFK was taken.

I visited Dealy Plaza a few years ago. I didn't like it. Gave me the creeps. Surprised me I felt like that. Not a memorial I want to visit again.

Most definitely a poignant moment in our nation's history. And a very personal one as well.

Grandmother Mary said...

I was also on retreat when it happened. I had just graduated from high school with the youthful optimism of that time of life. I felt grief, loss, and the sheer perversity of the death of such a man. The fact he hailed from my home state, was a democrat and a catholic made the loss personal somehow.

Allyson said...

I was hoping that one of my bloggers would post about this. Thank you so much for your recollections. I feel like that is your generation's tragedy, just as 9/11 is ours. And then to think that your grandchildren and Blue will have something all their own...we just don't know what it will be. It's hard not to grieve it before it even happens.

Mom was watching a PBS special based on Bill O'Reilly's book, Killing Kennedy, last week. She mentioned that the suit Jackie Kennedy was wearing has been hidden away and won't be available for viewing until like 2160 or some crazy year. It didn't make much sense to me and she pointed out that it's just too disturbing for her generation. They are waiting until everyone is gone and it doesn't carry the same weight anymore. Like seeing the pillow where Lincoln died. And then on Thursday night, CSPAN was playing radio transmissions and phone recordings from Nov 22-25 and it was haunting. The radio transmissions between the White House and Kennedy's staff right after the shooting were just...well, disturbing. So, I can only imagine what it would be like for your generation.

One other thing, we listened to "On Hallowed Ground" on Audible and there is a whole section about Kennedy's funeral. The trainer for the riderless horse speaks at length about that day and explains how he prepared the horse for the day-long event and what happened to make him so jumpy and hard to handle.

I don't know that there's much left of Camelot. Anything too good to be true, usually is...

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Nancy, this is a lovely piece. I've not spoken to an American about the day itself, but I no understand a little about the feelings this anniversary evokes. Indigo x

Unknown said...

Permanent memory. Sophomore math class. Principal making the announcement over the PA system. Dazed confusion and sadness. Growing up too quickly.


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